When you first watched “Jurassic Park,” were you one of the few people in the audience that was mildly interested in the dinosaurs but super excited by the prospect of digging up fossilized plants and animals?
Side note: In the movie, right before they see the brachiosaurus for the first time, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) rips a leaf off a tree and remarks that it’s a plant that has been extinct since the cretaceous period. Are you, like me, still bothered, even 27 years later, that they explained how they resurrected the dinosaurs (DNA found in ancient mosquitoes encased in amber combined with frog DNA and incubated from embryos in eggs), but they never explained how they brought back the plants?
If so, Colorado has the perfect national monument for you: The Florissant Fossil Beds.
Located in between Buena Vista and Colorado Springs, the monument is a 6,000-acre chunk of land that is chock-full of well-preserved plant and insect fossils. If you trip over a stump over at Florissant Fossil Beds, there’s a good chance that it’s from the Eocene Epoch — or about 34 million years old. That’s not quite dinosaur times, but it is the period when the earliest forms of modern mammals, like horses, bats, and whales, were appearing.
The fossils were, well … fossilized because a series volcanoes about 15 to 18 miles southwest of Florissant erupted like Mt. St. Helens. That eruption covered the area with ash, which interacted with the already marshy environment to create the perfect kind of clay for preserving things.
Unfortunately, some of the monument’s features, such as its Petrified Forest, lost a ton of cool stuff to collectors and tourists, who had a habit of taking handfuls of the natural collection as keepsakes back in the 19th century, when nobody gave a damn. A lot of those fossilized trees — which are related to the modern redwoods you’d find at national parks on the West Coast — are still there, though, especially ones that were excavated more recently than Wild West times. They’re impressive in their own right at up to 14 feet wide.
There are also all sorts of fossil flowers and leaves there, including cocoa flowers. Remember this in case you fall through a time tunnel and end up in prehistoric Colorado. If you’re crafty, you might be able to make yourself a chocolate bar … hopefully before the predators get you.
The other fossils Florissant is famous for, its insects, aren’t that different from what you’d see today — ants, beetles, butterflies, dragonflies, normal flies, moths, and wasps. In fact, they’re probably the same bugs swarming around you as you stare at the rocks at the national monument. A lot of them are amazingly well preserved, but dozens of millions of years of beauty sleep hasn’t made them any less creepy or crawly. (Unless, of course, you’re one of those people that is enchanted by bugs — in which case, they’re just as majestic as the day they were covered in sediment.)
There are also, to a lesser extent, fish and mammal fossils.
In addition to the visitor center, which contains a museum, the site has miles of hiking trails, some of which pass near historical buildings left behind by the first stewards of the monument, if you’re into that sort of thing — and you can see Pikes Peak, which is not that far away. The town of Florissant is on U.S. 24, and the national monument is about two miles south on Teller County Road 1.